Friday, February 13, 2009

Stateless and hungry - Feb 9

Maha, Lana and I delivered food assistance packages to 3 families that were recommended to us by another aid organization here. In the past, all of the families they have directed us to have been Iraqi refugees in need. This time, when we visited these three families, we were surprised to find out that they are not Iraqi - but Bedoon - a nomadic group who once roamed the region including Iraq but, since the declination of borders creating nations following WW1, and as borders of these nations have tightened up, the Bedoon have been forced to remain within the borders of the countries they were in. The families we visited today were in Kuwait until they were able to travel illegally to Jordan. When in Kuwait, they did not have citizenship and were not allowed to work or for their children to attend schools.

You can read more about the Bedoon here.

All three of these families were able to negotiate surreptitious travel and came to Amman to seek relocation in a third country. These families are the lucky ones; the UN is arranging for their resettlement now. But, while they wait for resettlement, they are living in poverty and as needy as any of the Iraqi families we assist. So, although we usually do not provide assistance to other nationality groups, since we brought with us food to their homes, of course we provided them assistance.

This is one of the hardest parts of our work - encountering families who are as needy as Iraqi refugees here and, because of budget limitations and our mission statement, we must deny them aid. When it comes down to it, human need has no nationality and the responsibility of those of us with more resources is the same, no matter who is in need.

Below are photos of these three families

Mohammed and Khaiya have three children: Afrah - 9, Sajad - 8, and Anwar - 5

Ali and Shukra with two of their 9 children

Intisar's husband has already gone to the UK for asylum. She and their 5 children are waiting to join him there

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Update on Sukhar - Feb 7

***For more information about this child, please read Aug 19 08 post "Bitter Tea"***

Jeannie and Minor accompanied Maha and I to visit Sukhar and his family. Minor is a recently retired cardiologist and he generously offered to take a look at S
ukhar while here. Although CRP does not - cannot afford to - take on medical need cases, after our initial visit to this family and learning of the severity of Sukhar's condition and that no-one was helping, we could not walk away without trying to offer help. We put out the word through this blog and two CRP supporters in the US - Kerry and Maureen - offered to do what they could to see if treatment for Sukhar can be arranged for in the US. They are approaching medical aid organizations and children's treatment centers to see if one will agree to provide life-saving treatment for this sweet kid. First, it must be determined as to whether or not he is a candidate for surgery. We are concerned that his condition is so severe that it cannot be treated surgically but we hope for the best and will not give up on the possibility of saving Sukhar's life unless we know that hope is futile.

Minor spoke with Sukhar's pediatric cardiologist here and Dr Salameh told Minor that a US pediatric cardiologist will be in Amman soon to attend a conference. Minor has now returned to the US and has contacted this doctor and he has agreed to examine Sukhar while he is here. We assume that we will need to go forward in getting current tests done to help evaluate Sukhar's candidacy for surgery. His last tests are out of date, from 5 years ago. Although inexpensive by comparison to what they would cost in the US, the $800 they cost here is beyond the ability to pay of this poor family. If you can help to pay for this, please contact us

I will post an update on Sukhar after he is examined by the US doctor.

Sukhar is not alone in not being able to receive the medical care he needs. There are many, many children and adults here who have critical medical needs and funding to provide them the care they need is criminally inadequate.

Cancer, in particular, is o
ne disease that is under-treated since the cost of treatment is exceptionally high. Only a small percentage of those diagnosed with it receive care or do not receive it until it is too late to save their lives. The use of chemical and uranium weapons by the US in Iraq - both during the Gulf War and then since the 2003 invasion - has contributed to the high number of children with cancer and yet the US takes no responsibility in providing treatment and care for these children.

Not all lives are lost on the battlefield or under bombardment. The youngest victims of war sometimes suffer the most and the longest before they become another statistic of "collateral damage".

"I am tired - I am tired and tired of it all. I just want a place to call home" - Feb 6

Jeannie and Minor (see Feb 5 post) joined Maha, me and Lana (who works with Yale Law Group which assists Iraqi refugees with resettlement) to visit two families. Lana would get their stories and other information to submit to Yale Law Group for consideration to be added to their client list.

First we returned to visit Thukra and her family (See Jan 30th post: Children with no hope for a future)

Lana, fluent in both Arabic and English, interviewed the family, asking them to tell their stories again as she documented them in her laptop.
I am always amazed at the courage so many have as they recount unimaginably horrific experiences and discuss the state of their lives in exile. I know that a good part of this courage is desperation; they need assistance terribly or they cannot bear the conditions they are in and want resettlement so badly that they will open their souls and share their anguish if they think it will bring relief from what they experience now. Their pain is so big and they've endured it for so long, it sometimes spills out in tears when they talk about it.

Thukra was telling Lana about how her two eldest can only "audit" school, how they receive no grades or record of their academic achievements. She told us, "Mustafa wants to be a pilot. When he tells me - it breaks my heart - but I must tell him that he CANNOT" She breaks down.

As a mother myself, I cannot imagine the depth of her pain, cannot imagine having to tell a child that their dreams cannot be fullfilled, that they are stuck behind immoveable walls - walls that in reality are only flimsy words typed on documents but that are, to this bright boy and his plans for a future, as formidable as the Himalayas.

We all weep with Thukra but our tears are useless. We must do all that we can to find a way for this family to be resettled and for the ability to believe in dreams be restored to her son.
We then visit Atiaf, her husband, Salah and their three children: Eathar (15), Manar (12), and Taha (8).

Atiaf is exhausted. She works as a paid volunteer with a relief agency 6 days per week but her wages are not enough to take care of their needs. She comes home to take care of the house and children. But it seems that the biggest cause of her exhaustion is that it never ends - and she just longs for a time when the stress and uncertainty are over.

"I am tired - I am tired and tired of it all. It is impossible to go back to Iraq. I did not come here to stay here. I just want a place to call home" and she breaks down and weeps.

Salah was hit by shrapnal from a cluster bomb in the Iran-Iraq War. He suffered PTSD from that war but was receiving regular treatment and was improving. Then, with the US invasion of 2003, his condition regressed. He suffers now and, although taking medication, he still struggles with the demons daily.

He tells us "I've not just endured a lot, I've endured too much. It was common to see dead people laying on the ground. When we left our houses, we did not know if we would return"

Atiaf and Salah have lost many family members: Salah's cousin and nephew were at the market and a car bomb killed them both. Atiaf's uncle was praying in a mosque when it was surrounded by militia and burned, killing him. Her cousin was delivering furniture when militia missles hit and killed him.

The children have been through a lot, too. Thaha was nearly kidnapped when he was four years old. He left his grandmother's house to go home. His aunt watched from the doorway as a car followed him and then stopped to ask him directions. His aunt screamed and the man left quickly. But now Thaha sees abductors in the wad of blankets on the bed, is afraid to go to the bathroom alone, and his brother says that sometimes he keeps him awake until dawn because he is afraid. When he sees strangers he worries that they want to kidnap him.

They left Iraq after getting threatening emails and leaflets with threats were dropped into their garden. The leaflets read: "Leave or we will not just kill you; we will burn you"

The family remains in limbo - no longer in Iraq but the ghosts of it followed them here and are a part of their lives now. Their lives here are dominated by this past and their daily survival. They feel that their only hope is to be resettled, to be able to plan for and create a new future for themselves.

We are emotionally drained after sharing the sadness and frustration of these families who were only living their lives in Iraq and had their entire existance torn apart and forever altered in ways that can never be repaired because of mythical "weapons of mass destruction" and then another myth - to bring them "freedom". Their ability to heal over these wounds and to find eventual freedom from the relentless ghosts of the past and now relies on their ability to find safe refuge in a third country. Our exhaustion is nothing compared to theirs.

How much longer must they wait?

Visitors from the US bring gifts - Feb 5

Maha, Zuzu and two members of the OAT Travel group

Maha, her daughter "Zuzu" and I met Jeannie and Minor Mathews and members of their Middle East tour group at their hotel on Thursday evening. Maha spoke to the group about Collateral Repair Project and answered questions from the group members.

Jeannie is a volunteer with CRP in Medford, Oregon and she talked up our project along the tour, before the group arrived in Jordan and asked them to donate clothing items for "Maha Mall" (the area of Maha's kitchen where Iraqis come to get good quality used clothing and household goods) She also asked them to bring crayons and coloring books. We take these to give to children when we visit families.

The tour group gave big!

Zuzu surrounded by the bags of clothing and children's gifts

Thanks to Jeannie & Minor and the generous members of their OAT Travel group!

CODE PINK NYC Benefit for Collateral Repair Project!!!!

A huge thanks to CodePink for their continued support and to CodePink NYC for their LOVE!

If you're in the City, join in the fun and share your love with Iraqi refugees

Make Out Not War! Happy Hour at Sutra Lounge, February 12

Come get in the mood for Valentine’s Day. Share the love with your pals & gals
in the LES* Sutra Bar & Lounge 16 1st Ave @ 1st St, 7-10p (pink drink special 7-9)

DJ, cupcakes, raffle & dancing + chocolate, stickers and ‘make out not war’ t-shirts.

$10 donation at the door will benefit Iraqi refugees

*your love will also be shared with Collateral Repair Project, a grassroots movement, created to address the tragic displacement of 5 million Iraqis who have been forced to leave their homes & communities as a result of the invasion and occupation of their country.

if you want to buy a ticket with a credit card or you can't make it but want to donate to the cause click here!

For more information contact Nancy at codepinknyc[at], or call Dana during office hours at the CODEPINK NYC office at 646.723.1781.

How much is a son's freedom worth? How can it be paid for?

Sundus and her husband, Nisan live in the impoverished Marka district of Amman with their three children - Steven (22), Oliver (20), and their only daughter, Eva - age 18. We visited them after Maha received a call from Sundus, begging for help. They are destitute and are getting threats because they owe a large amount of money and have no way to repay it.

This family is Assyrian Christian.

The violence in Iraq threatens one of the world's oldest Christian communities, dating back 2,000 years. The population includes Chaldean Assyrians (Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize the Pope's authority); Assyrians, who form an independent church; Syrian Catholics; and Armenian Catholics. Under Saddam, Christians coexisted more or less amicably with the Muslim majority. Easter services were broadcast on state television, and Christians were allowed to own and operate liquor stores.

Nisan had been a surveyor and played guitar and sang in a band in Baghdad called Venus. Nisan and Sundus met when she went to hear him play. We laughed about how young women everywhere fall in love with musicians. Nisan nods his head and sweetly smiles in agreement.

They fled to Jordan in 2007 after militants attempted to kidnap Eva as she and Oliver were walking to church. Oliver fought with them and was stabbed in his arm. Both he and Eva escaped but Oliver now has no sensation in that arm.

Not long after the attempted kidnapping, the family began to receive death threats. They say that Eva was in a photo taken at their church and there were US military members in the photo. A neighbor had seen the photo and they assume that they told someone.

It is like that in Iraq now; people often have no idea who is threatening them and who they should mistrust. It could be sectarian militia, perhaps they are threatened or attacked because they were in some way associated with Coalition troops; it could be common criminals, or, as it is for so many Christians in Iraq since the US-led invasion, it could be those who are targeting them or other minority groups. Petty disagreements and jealousies can result in neighbors turning other neighbors in to these groups - sometimes lying.

Nisan owned a washing machine repair shop in Baghdad. Militia took all of the washing machines he was keeping for repair and all of his tools and then set the shop on fire.

Despite this string of threats and losses, when the family came to Jordan, they thought that the situation in Iraq would improve within a few months and they would be able to return. Now they say that it has only deteriorated further and they have no hope that they will be able to return in the foreseeable future.

They arrived with very little. They sold what they still owned for very low prices and the money did not last long. Now they receive the monthly UNHCR cash grant of 140 JD. Their rent of 120 JD devours most of that. When we asked how they survive, they say that their church helps them now and then with relief items and through the kindness of neighbors.

But they face a problem now seems bigger than they can resolve. A few months after they entered Jordan, Oliver - then 18 - started working under the table as a house painter. Within the first week, he was caught by the police and imprisoned for five days. He would have probably been dumped over the border back into Iraq if his Jordanian employer not gone to the police and paid Oliver's fine of 550 JD. Oliver was returned to his family but they then were under obligation to repay the cost of the fine. Over the past two years they have been paying it off in small increments as sympathetic people hear their story and offer help. They still owe him 300 JD. The man has lost patience with them and is constantly calling to tell them he wants his money. He makes it sound like a threat.

Iraqis in Jordan are extremely vulnerable. If complaints about them are made by a citizen, Iraqis may be imprisoned or deported back to Iraq. The pressure of this obligation, their inability to meet it, and the fear of what may happen if they cannot weighs heavily on Nisan and Sundus.

Maha gives them 50JD to make a payment toward their debt. Hopefully this will temporarily satisfy the lender and they may perhaps have a few weeks of relief from the burden of this worry but there will be next month and the many that follow it until this debt is paid off.

A Question Worthy of Solomon - Feb 5

We visited Ala'a, his wife, Thuraya, and their two young sons Laith (9 years old) and three year old Abdullah to take a food relief box to them.

Ala'a lived in Baghdad but owned a small gypson board factory in Fallujah until militia took over the shop, stealing all the equipment and stock. Ala'a speculates that he was targeted because he is Shia but, in the lawlessness of Iraq, it could be a case of criminal theft. So many Iraqis we speak with are not certain who the "militia" are as they consistently tell us that the men's faces are covered to hide their identity. After his shop was taken, he stayed in Baghdad until leaving for Jordan.

Thuraya is Sunna and from Baghdad. Before the invasion intermarriage between men and women of different sects was as common as it is in the US for people of different Christian religions to marry. It was usually not an issue one thought about. Now that has changed, of course, as fundamentalists from or influenced by the extreme conservative form of Islam from Iran have free rein and terrorize people into segregation and conservatism. Iraq, a model of liberal secularism in the ME prior to the US invasion is now reverting backwards rapidly.

Both Ala'a and Thuraya's families are scattered now; a few still inside of Iraq, some in Syria, others in diferent European countries. Those remaining in Iraq endure much hardship. Ala'a's brother was threatened and left his city because he worked in a bank that did business with Americans. One of Thuraya's brother-in-laws had been taken prisoner by both Iraqi police and then American forces. Both tortured him badly by electrocution and beatings. Now he is too weak from his injuries to travel but wants desperately to leave Iraq. Ala'a told us that the torture inflicted on this man under US detention was preferrable to that inflicted on him by the Iraqi police " was not as bad, no...but yes, the Americans used electrcity, too..." And, while Thuraya was still in Iraq, US forces entered her uncle's house while she was there and beat her teenage nephews in front of her. Another two teenage cousins were taken 3 months ago from outside their home. They disappeared and are assumed killed. Their older brother was killed a year ago by US military when he was inadvertantly caught in cross-fire between US troops and others.

Ala'a tells us that, when the US kills a civilian, the bodies are not released to the family for burial; they are taken to a hospital and held for three days, before the family must go to the hospital to retrieve their loved one's remains. This can put family members in danger because many of the hospitals are controlled, at least in part, by militia. If a family is of a different sect, retrieving their family member can be like walking into a lion's den and they can be murdered. Ala'a tells us that one of his friends had to pay the militia at a hospital $1000 in order to get his brother's body.

Laith was five years old and had to be taken to a hospital in Baghdad. He still talks incessently about seeing the bodies being carried into the hospital. His father tells us that the corpses were tied together in pairs, with gun shot wounds in all of their heads. Laith draws many pictures of the war and of blood. Ala'a tells us "He cannot forget"

Another of Ala'a's sons, Mohammed, who was 18 at the time, was kidnapped and beaten before he escaped. The threats became real and the risks too much for the family to consider staying in Iraq any longer.

Finally, in 2006, Ala'a and Thuraya left Baghdad for Jordan, having waited for the birth of their youngest before taking the harrowing journey. Baby Abdullah was only 20 days old. They first took land transport to the Jordanian border but, when they arrived there, they were told that their paperwork was "not good" and after spending three days on the border trying to get this cleared up, they returned to Baghdad for a second and successful attempt made by air.

They brought significant savings with them to Jordan but living expenses, school tuition, and medical bills have wiped it out completely. Now they are destitute and waiting anxiously for resettlement.

Ala'a has been accepted for resettlement to the US but he has been told that he must make a dificult decision first. This choice has him and his family reeling and in held suspended animation: Because Ala'a has two wives and two families (not uncommon in the Arab world) and US law dictates that he can have only one spouse, he must choose one wife, one family to remain married to and divorce the other. He loves both families equally and he cannot bring himself to determine which to abandon. He is obviously torn in two over this.

Although I cannot see myself agreeing to be in a marriage with another wife, I also know that it is not my place as a guest in this culture to bring my own preferences to the table in our work with Iraqis here. Our intent is to provide Iraqi refugees with what they need for their safety, survival and well-being without judgement and based only on their need. I see that Thuraya has no discomfort in their marriage arrangement and that she shares her husband's angst over this.

I suggest that he choose to divorce one and immigrate with that wife and their children to the US while the divorced wife apply for resettlement for her and their children. Then, once they are all in the US together, Ala'a might remarry the divorced wife in a religious marriage ceremony. But both Ala'a and Thuraya feel that the legal marriage is important. I tell them that there is no solution that I know of, that he can only be legally married to one woman at a time. Their distess is obvious. Thuraya thinks, if she is the one divorced, she may apply for immigration to Australia - perhaps Ala'a can visit her and their sons once he has a legal US passport...

Although it is reasonable to expect immigrants to follow US law no matter how that differs from their country of origin's, it would be humane for long established polygamous families with children to be allowed to immigrate to the same country, under the same resettlement visa so that children and their fathers are not torn from one another.

I have not met Ala'a's first wife and their children yet. Ala'a tells us that he had five children but one recently died of brain cancer. Desperate to save their son's life, they agreed to put him in the only hospital that would agree to give him surgery without having to pay the full amount in advance. Now he owes the hospital 9000 JD and he had to give his passport to the hospital until he pays this bill. They would not allow him to have his son's body until the passport was handed over to them.

They sold all of their furniture and anything of value to pay what they could on this bill and for their living expenses. The small monthly UNHCR cash grants provided to the two families are not enough to pay for their rent and food.

As we prepare to leave, Ala'a asks us, point blank, "So, what can you do for us?" And all we can offer is a box of staple foods. It is appreciated but this family, like every other Iraqi family I meet here, has more needs than we are capable of providing assistance for. I feel frustrated that we can only do so little. I understand that my frustration is only a tiny shadow of the frustration and worry that people here wake up to and endure every day, year after year.

There are no easy answers.

Laith draws a "dream house" where everything is ok

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Visit to Nawal and her family - Feb 4

In late afternoon, Maha and I hired a taxi to take us the 20 kilometers out of Amman to Baqa'a to do a follow-up visit to our last Micro-Project recipient, Nawal and her 7 children. (see Current Micro-Projects on our web site to read about this family)

We left behind the crowded capital to open vistas and tawny mountains dotted with occasional clumps of trees. Now and then we'd pass a stand of colourful produce set up at the side of the busy highway. But the landscape flattened and became monochrome as we entered Baqa'a.

Baqa'a is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, with a population of over 180,000. It is extremely impoverished and some Iraqi refugees have fled the higher cost of living in Amman to live here.

We park in the central area of town to wait for Nawal to meet us and direct us to her home. Around us, street commerce, pedestrians and cars all seem to occupy the same space. I am regreful that I do not have time to get out and explore this lively area.

Nawal arrives and joins us in the car to lead us through a maze of streets to her home. Maha points out that many walls along the way have "THIS IS PALESTINE" written on them in Arabic. We go down a road that is mostly auto repair garages and park in front of Nawal's home. It is no diferent from the others we have seen as we approached it: pitted and crumbling wall and splattered graffiti.

We enter to a room piled with huge plastic bags of diapers. Paint is peeling off of the walls and there are holes without glass for windows. Nawal explains that the diapers are all sizes, mixed together in the bags, she sorts them by size, attaches tape closures, and repackages them in sets in smaller sealed plastic bags to sell to merchants in town. Each large bag will bring her about 21JD - and then, after setting aside enough money to pay for another bag to replenish her stock, she will have made only about 5-6 JD in profit. I mention that this is a lot of work for such small proft but she explains that she sells the diapers only when she has sorted and repackaged the entire room full so that she receives a relatively large amount of money all at once. She then purchases another lot of diapers so that her business continues. It is painstaking, time-consuming work and I admire her tenacity - especially since she does this while caring for her large family.
The children are shy. Some peek from behind the curtained door briefly and others hurry through the room we are in. Only 13 year old Mariam sticks around and teases me by sneaking up behind me and poking at me gently. Her older sister, Asma, joins us long enough for a photo and then, Ali - age 11, ventures out. Nawal tells us that the two older girls have left school. Mariam, at age 13, is only in the 5th grade.

I ask if I can see the rest of their home. We enter the curtain to the single room that appears to be both living and sleeping space for this family of 9. The ceiling looks higher than the length of it's walls. The two youngest are asleep on mats on the floor, nestled in blankets. I hear a giggle and look up to see 6 year old Ahmed perched high on top of a tower of foam mats that are stacked on top of the tall wardrobe. The ceiling is falling away in strips over his head but he smiles mischieviously and we all laugh, telling him that he is a strange little "bird".

I am stunned at the degree of poverty this family lives in and I wonder about the cold winter nights in this house with open window spaces. I hope their lives improve with their Micro-Project and, seeing how Nawal keeps her family clean and cared for in these trying circumstances; I know she has the determination and tenacity to make it work the best that she can.